Moms of obese children use different words to restrict eating

January 9, 2018, University of Michigan

It's a familiar scene at a birthday party: As a child goes back for a second cupcake or piece of cake, a parent says he has had enough sweets.

But the rebuke may differ family to family. In a small new study, researchers found caregivers of children with may be more likely to use direct statements to restrict a child's eating.

A research team led by University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital videotaped 237 mothers and children who were seated alone in a room and presented with different types of foods, including chocolate cupcakes. Direct commands like "only eat one" were more often used among mothers of children with obesity while eating dessert, according to the findings published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

Meanwhile, mothers of children who did not have obesity were more likely to guide children with indirect comments such as, "That's too much. You haven't had dinner."

"Current child obesity guidelines remain silent on how parents should talk to their children about limiting intake," says lead author Megan Pesch, M.D., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Mott.

"There is some conflicting advice on the best approach. On one hand, overly restricting food could backfire and actually lead to overeating. But parents also want to encourage healthy habits. We wanted to study these family dynamics to see how adults try to get kids to eat less ."

Pesch notes that in most other areas of child development, such as discipline and sleep, direct and firm imperatives are linked with improved child compliance and behaviors. But when it comes to food, expert advice is more mixed.

"Indirect or subtle statements don't seem to work as well in general parenting," she says. "Direct messages are usually easier for kids to interpret and understand where the limits are.

"But there's more sensitivity around how to talk to children about eating and weight.

"To our knowledge, there are also no studies that have examined the impact of parental direct imperatives in restricting a child's intake of unhealthy food," Pesch adds.

The study included low-income, female primary caregivers with children ranging from ages 4 to 8. Ninety-five percent of caregivers were biological mothers, with the remainder mostly including grandmothers and stepmothers.

Pesch says there's sometimes a stereotype that parents of children with obesity are less conscious of their child's eating habits, but the observational study helps debunk some of those misconceptions.

"There's often this perception that parents of children with obesity let their kids eat voraciously and don't manage their child's diet," she says. "But the mothers we observed were on it. They were attentive and actively trying to get their children to eat less junk food.

"These mothers may be quite invested in wanting their children to have the best possible health outcomes."

Pesch says the U-M developmental and behavioral research team plans to further study what language and communication tactics are most effective in encouraging healthy eating among children.

"The finding that of with obesity used more direct imperatives to restrict eating may have important implications for practice guidelines and future research," she says.

"Direct imperatives may in fact have a healthy, adaptive role in approaches to feeding to prevent childhood obesity, but we have to do more work to understand the nuances."

"So many of the guidelines are focused on what not to do," Pesch adds. "There's a lot of emphasis on what parents shouldn't be doing and what doesn't work. We hope to find better answers to the ultimate question of what should do to help set their child up for healthy eating long term."

Explore further: Only one-third of parents think they are doing a good job helping kids eat healthy

Related Stories

Only one-third of parents think they are doing a good job helping kids eat healthy

February 20, 2017
If you know healthy eating is important for your kids but you also feel like it's easier said than done, you're not alone.

A focus on dental health can protect children from developing overweight

November 8, 2017
Talking about dental health with children and parents – about what is healthy and unhealthy for your teeth – can be one way to prevent children from developing overweight. This is suggested in a thesis from Sahlgrenska ...

Many parents put 'food pressure' on their kids, study finds

August 25, 2015
(HealthDay)—New research finds that parents of overweight kids are more likely to restrict their children's food intake—a potentially bad idea—if they themselves are carrying extra pounds.

Fathers' involvement may help prevent childhood obesity

June 21, 2017
Fathers are becoming more involved with raising children, but limited research has examined their association with childhood obesity. In a recent study, fathers' increased involvement with child caregiving was linked with ...

Eat healthy -- your kids are watching

May 30, 2012
If lower-income mothers want kids with healthy diets, it's best to adopt healthy eating habits themselves and encourage their children to eat good foods rather than use force, rewards or punishments, says a Michigan State ...

Parenting and home environment influence children's exercise and eating habits

June 18, 2013
Kids whose moms encourage them to exercise and eat well, and model those healthy behaviors themselves, are more likely to be active and healthy eaters, according to researchers at Duke Medicine.

Recommended for you

Evening hours may pose higher risk for overeating, especially when under stress, study finds

January 16, 2018
Experiments with a small group of overweight men and women have added to evidence that "hunger hormone" levels rise and "satiety (or fullness) hormone" levels decrease in the evening. The findings also suggest that stress ...

Bariatric surgery prolongs lifespan in obese

January 16, 2018
Obese, middle-age men and women who had bariatric surgery have half the death rate of those who had traditional medical treatment over a 10-year period, reports a study that answers questions about the long-term risk of the ...

Sugar-sweetened drinks linked to overweight and obesity in children, adults: Analysis of new studies

December 23, 2017
A new review of the latest evidence on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs)- which includes 30 new studies published between 2013 and 2015 (and none of them industry sponsored) - concludes that SSB consumption is associated with ...

As income rises, women get slimmer—but not men

December 21, 2017
(HealthDay)—A comprehensive survey on the widening American waistline finds that as paychecks get bigger, women's average weight tends to drop.

Policy and early intervention can curb obesity rates

December 18, 2017
More information and emphasis on dietary lifestyle changes that prevent obesity, and its comorbidities, have not reduced the rise in obesity in U.S. adults and adolescents, according to a recent study in the New England Journal ...

Warning labels can help reduce soda consumption and obesity, new study suggests

December 15, 2017
Labels that warn people about the risks of drinking soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages can lower obesity and overweight prevalence, suggests a new Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.